Feb. 26--Four children huddled together between their mother's bed and a first-story window while flames burned their way into the attic above their heads.
Firefighters say the blaze started in a bedroom of the James Street house where Nykhiya, 10, Jamarrian, 9, and Daija, 7, and J'Lon, 3, lived with their mother.
The shielding protection of his older siblings' bodies may have saved J'Lon's life.
Each of the older children was fatally burned by the super-heated air radiating from flames in the other bedroom, said Marvin Riggins, Macon-Bibb County fire chief.
J'Lon was taken to Joseph M. Still Burn Center at Doctors Hospital of Augusta on Sunday for treatment of smoke inhalation. His condition was upgraded from critical to serious Monday afternoon, a hospital spokeswoman said.
His mother said the little boy who once was hooked to a breathing machine was breathing on his own but hadn't regained consciousness Monday.
Autopsies for the Nykhiya, Jamarrian and Daija are scheduled for Tuesday, said Leon Jones, Bibb County coroner.
Although firefighters returned Monday to the house, located just off Log Cabin Drive, a cause for the fire has not been determined.
"It's not really looking suspicious," Riggins said.
Firefighters requested help from the GBI and the state fire marshal's office Monday. Investigators are set to arrive Tuesday.
"We just don't want to leave any stone unturned," Riggins said.
An investigator from the company that insures the house also is participating in the probe, the chief said.
Macon police also gathered evidence Monday as part of an investigation.
An officer was posted on the street in front of the house for much of the day.
Flames in the night
When firefighters left their Mercer University Drive station near the Macon Mall on Sunday morning, they thought they were headed to fight a grass fire.
That's what the first caller, who said they saw the flames from a distance, had told a dispatcher, Riggins said. Firefighters are trying to locate the caller as a part of their investigation.
Because of the emergency call, only one fire truck was dispatched.
It wasn't until firefighters arrived that they saw the heavy smoke and called for help. Soon, four other fire trucks arrived.
The four firefighters from the Mercer University Drive station didn't wait for their comrades to begin working their way into the small white house with green shutters.
"Those people were really under a lot of duress for the first few minutes," Riggins said.
While fighting fire, they also knew "at that time of the morning, the probability that someone was inside the house was good," the chief said.
The first truck arrived at about 1:45 a.m.
The children were out of the house before 2 a.m.
Colethia Williams, the children's mother, returned from a trip to a nearby convenience store just before the children were brought out.
She has said she was gone for about 15 minutes.
Most of the fire damaged the small bedroom where it started. When the window broke, the flames spread to the attic and eaves of the house, Riggins said.
The room was likely the children's room. But Williams has told firefighters that the children were sleeping in her room, the chief said.
Riggins said the house was outfitted with a smoke detector, but firefighters didn't hear it chirping when they went in to fight the fire.
"We're not sure if it was operable or not," he said.
'They had a zest for life'
The mood at Riley Elementary Monday was very "reserved and somber and respectful," said Principal Kent Sparks.
Nykhiya, Jamarrian and Daija attended classes at the school, located about a half a mile from their house.
"They were sweet. They had a zest for life," said Sparks, who also sent parents a letter about the matter Monday.
Fourth-grader Nykhiya was "quiet," Sparks said.